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Review: Zadie Smith's 'NW' a powerful exploration of lives adrift

Childhood friends find themselves in the midst of uneasy adulthood in Zadie Smith's ambitious new novel, 'NW.'

September 16, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

To Natalie, who as a teen changed her name from Keisha, this is all a matter of identity, a condition Smith emphasizes by referring to her always by her full name: Natalie Blake. The idea is to remind us that adulthood is a part she's playing, but the deeper resonance has to do with authenticity. Personality, Natalie understands, is elusive, a question of surfaces, of what we own, what we consume, rather than who we are. The inner life is defined by the outer, by the food we eat, the phones we use, even the ideals we espouse.

Smith illustrates the point in a withering brunch scene involving Natalie, her husband and another couple, where the pieties come fast and heavy, framed by pragmatics and family life. "They were all agreed that war should not be happening," she writes. "They were against war. … Only the private realm existed now. Work and home. Marriage and children. … Sexual perversity was also old-fashioned: it smacked of an earlier time. It was messy, embarrassing, impractical in this economy."

Later, Natalie encounters Nathan, a school friend turned neighborhood druggie. He and his friends "dressed as kids," and she "dressed as a successful lawyer in her early thirties." The phrasing says it all; they are, every one of them, in costume, "the 'local vibrancy' to which the estate agents referred."

Were Smith less interested in language, this could be the stuff of easy irony, of literature masked as social commentary. But the power of the novel is that she continually digs beneath these surfaces, exposing not hypocrisy so much as the emptiness that all her characters feel.

There is a plot here, a loose one that begins when Leah gets scammed by a local crack addict and winds its way to a tragic confluence in which all the main characters (to greater or lesser extent) are involved. That, however, is the least part of the novel: a concession to some need for resolution, which (paradoxically) "NW" doesn't need.

And yet, if it's a flaw, it doesn't seem like much of one. "Only connect," Forster wrote in "Howards End" (the book that inspired "On Beauty"), but at the heart of the modernist project is the recognition that connection is fleeting, if not impossible — even, or especially, with ourselves.

This is the territory Smith's novel traces: an inner landscape that we all know because it is ours also: intractable, transient, by turns defining and elusive, as "[w]e wait for an experience large or brutal enough to disturb it or break it open completely, but this moment never arrives."

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